Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Beethoven - Symphony No. 9

I am not in love with Beethoven's ninth symphony. I find it very difficult to hold it all in my head at once and the last movement baffles me. The first three movements are of such scale and scope that Beethoven's decision to bring a choir into the finale is understandable - it adds weight and grandeur, helps to balance the piece. But once you've got that choir, it's hard to write a conventional rondo finale, so Beethoven repeats the solution of his third symphony and pens a loose set of variations. And of course this is Beethoven, so they are worked into a miniature four-movement symphony in their own right, with an expository allegro, a scherzo with jangling Janissary band, a slow movement, and a frantic finale. The ambition is great, but the strain seems to show, it can seem a little messy (the Grosse Fuge is messy, too, but there it's easier to accept the messiness as part of a deliberate scheme, especially when heard after the rest of the Op. 130 quartet; in the more formal shape of a symphony it looks odd). It's a popular piece, the fault is probably my own, but I end up experiencing it moment-by-moment, or at best movement-by-movement. Okay, this is how music goes, but it's nice to be able to stand back and see things in their entirety.

Perhaps all that just means that for me to like this symphony, it takes a special kind of performance. Here are two, each completely different in approach and effect. Furtwängler's recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is searing. It doesn't help me to see the big picture, but I'm not bothered about that when I'm busy dodging the lumps of molten iron its hurling at me in every bar - when you're running away from a lion you don't stop to admire the beauty of the savannah. Commentators turn to elemental or geological terms to describe it: it is seismic, it has the force of a tidal wave, it is volcanic. It was recorded live in Berlin in 1942 - this is troubling even if you take a charitable view of Furtwängler's much-discussed involvement with the Nazi Party. Some try to argue that the performance is somehow inherently anti-Nazi; the piece is a cry for freedom and universal brotherhood, and the performance has such a desperate urgency that such a reading may not be as fanciful as it seems. Anyway, the music is great.

Klemperer's live 1957 performance is at the opposite end of most scales. If the critical cliché for Furtwängler's performance is "volcanic", then for this it is "granitic". Here we're in more peaceful times, the lava has cooled. It isn't so furiously exciting, but it will last. The danger that Furtwängler feels in every bar is not so present here, but there is that wider view, standing back and looking at the hills, the trees, the smoke.

So here is Furtwängler (in pretty rough sound) and here is Klemperer (in very good sound). Never mind the piece, I love the recordings.


  1. nice resurrection! i sometimes wonder why this symphony is so well known (and often used to instruct children about classical music). yes, it is a towering achievement of symphonic form, but it's so god damn long. even when you truncate it into movements you're still left with something which i fear can barely hold many's attention.

  2. I've also never quite got to grips with the Hammerklavier sonata or the Diabelli variations. I think I may be a bit of a lightweight...